Smith’s book is largely about the ways in which the internet–internet devices, internet-saturated environments, internet culture–limits or damages the human capacity for sustained attention. The idea may be polemical and overstated. There are any number of online media, especially of the video or game-driven sort, that go several steps beyond fostering sustained attention: they go all the way to addiction. But as far as productive human activities go, I think Smith may be onto something. Maybe there is so much software in the world today because we live in an attention ecology that is particularly conducive to this form of labor. Maybe coding is still a viable form of attention because it is “native” to the screen, both born of and resulting in the digital environment. In an age of automation, there is a certain sense to the idea that some of the last creative people are the ones designing the automation.
The concept of “literate programming” in computer science is usually attributed to Donald Knuth. It’s a proposal that code and documentation should be equal partners with one another, or even that most of what counts as coding would be a form of writing about code. Within this model the actual code would occur occasionally, parenthetically, once its meaning and purpose has been thoroughly explained. The idea is quite romantic, and often-dismissed in any kind of industry setting, or any other where code is primarily written to do something. But I like to think of a world, maybe hundreds of years in the future, where writing or maintaining code has become an all-consuming, near-universal human activity, where people begin to rediscover real writing–expressive, prose writing–through a delight hidden inside the instructions given to machines.
Moving toward late fall here in Chicago, and while the leaf colors are past peak, the amount of leaves on the ground has reached a high point. I notice them everywhere, on top of cars and under the wheels, covering sidewalks, and of course blanketing the ground. From what I see in the neighborhood here on the South Side, among the greatest generators of leaf detritus by volume are the maples (Acer), particularly the silver maple (Acer saccharinum) which I have seen planted both by the city in streets and parks and in private backyards. W.J. Bean writes in his Trees and Shrubs Hardy to the British Isles, that “owing to the rather brittle nature of the wood, it is not suitable for use as a street tree,” but current usage around here disproves that. Its leaves are almost always yellow, which is also, to my eye, the predominant color of fall in Chicago.
While reading an old diary, and letters she sent to a classmate, she recognizes certain falsenesses in them—pretensions, lies, self-deceptions. The quotations from books she copied down in 1958 now strike her as a more direct means of access to her state of mind then. All memoir involves time travel, and yet Ernaux, as she twists and turns, trying to cross the schisms between her various selves, manages to create what feels like a new tense—a literary time zone that can hold it all at once.
These diaries feel like gifts, or offerings, that are unlike any other kind of writing. There is, as Ernaux herself writes in a brief introduction, “a truth in those pages that differed from the one to be found in Simple Passion—something raw and dark, without salvation, a kind of oblation.”
I’ve often thought that the so-called “Lasalle Canyon,”–which descibes a visual effect in Chicago, created by tall buildings between approximately Randolph and Jackson, looking south–actually had less to do with the height of the buildings on either side of the “canyon,” which was nothing unusual by city standards, and more to the with the dead-end appearance of the Chicago Board of Trade Building at the canyon’s end.
That building, which abruptly blocks the street at Jackson, is what creates the claustrophic effect for me.
And its imposing–I want to say ominous–appearance is like a fortress with its personification at the top: a statue of Ceres, Greek goddess of the harvest. That, to my mind, is one of the most unfriendly, menacing public statues anywhere. But it is hard for me to walk past LaSalle Street without turning to look.
A trend that seems to be accelerating in the last few years is the disappearance of dates from the internet. So far I haven’t seen it on news sites, but I see it more often on private corporate communication, blogs, and other lightly trafficked publications. I’ve heard rumors of some corporate sites removing the date after a set period of time, or even running periodic scripts to change the date to the present.
Some news websites, like The Guardian, display the date in a surprisingly inconspicuous position: on a sidebar, in small grey text, beneath the journalist byline.
The newest variants of social media, like TikTok, remove the the date entirely from main screens. Older apps like Facebook may not go that far, but they do prefer to count time in terms of distance from the present (“9 seconds ago”).
The internet was never really designed to be an archive. Even more, I doubt its designers could have conceived that the modern web, in all its various media streams, would become the place where large numbers of people “spend” the waking day, and that what people paid the most attention to online would effectively be live action.
If the date continues to disappear from the most populous places on the web, maybe it will be because the only date that matters on the internet is now. There is so much written online about the news today today, not because there is so much happening, but because when the standard is “right now,” it is never too soon to start catching up. Then even the news sites could dispense with the date.
In American media, a lothas been written in the last year about the Australian novelist Gerald Murnane. He just published what he claims is his final book, Last Letter to a Reader, which has set off many new attempts to introduce and assess his work.
I wanted to see what he was about, so I found a copy of his A Million Windows (2014).
Some underrecognized writers attract the interest of writers, and others the critics. I haven’t seen as much about what, say, novelists think about Murnane, but he has definitely attracted the interest of critics. Here is Merve Emre’s description of him in The New Yorker:
The act of contemplation is rendered in a compact and highly finished style that distinguishes Murnane both from his predecessor Proust and from his contemporaries W. G. Sebald, J. M. Coetzee, Jon Fosse, and Rachel Cusk. Murnane has described himself as a technical writer, and his outspoken and fastidious devotion to grammar steers a great deal of the thinking his narrators perform. This thinking is usually about the nature or the essence of fiction’s relation to life, and it often begins with verbs of supposition. “I, who dislike the word imagine, would prefer to use such an expression as speculate about,” reports the narrator of “A Million Windows.” “Speculate,” “suppose,” “presume,” and “seem”—as in “I seem to recall”—all shift narrative into the subjunctive mood, in which ambitions, conjectures, and longings reign.
The mood is enhanced by the sudden appearance of the perfect continuous conditional tense, which considers not what was, or what had been, but what would have been, or might have been, in certain secluded corners of the narrator’s mind. And, in these corners, one also finds a series of smaller, but no less essential, repetitions that hint at how far fiction may range from fact: the avoidance of proper names when referring to historical figures or locations, or the application of adjectives like “certain” or “so-called,” or adverbs like “probably” or “surely.” The effect is a paradoxical sense of both particularity and indeterminacy, exposure and concealment.
This passage gives an overview of his style, and a good sense of the high regard he receives in most reviews. But there’s a more plain effect it had on me that I didn’t see noted. What I read was unbelievably tedious and repetitive, like the intake document for a clinical asessment of an obsessive disorder. Take this near the beginning of A Million Windows:
If this paragraph were part of an autobiography or of a conventional work of fiction, then I might well report at this point that I saw at least once, and far across the extensive plains mentioned, a sight that I surmised was a reflection of the light from the declining sun in one or more upper windows of a house of at least two storeys. I might even go on to report that my reading, twenty years later, a certain autobiographical passage in which distant windows are likened to spots of golden oil was in some way connected with my reporting, in the next-to-last paragraph of my first published work of fiction, that the chief character of that work, while travelling with his parents across the extensive plains mentioned, is enabled to see in mind certain details that he has previously been unable so to see. This present work being neither autobiography nor fiction of the same order as the work that I began to write, in the present tense, in the mid-1960s, I need report here only the detail first mentioned in the seventh paragraph of this present work. I need report here only that the window first mentioned in the first paragraph of this present work of fiction might have seemed, at the moment when it was first mentioned, as a distant window might have seemed on an extensive plain to a narrator of an autobiography or to a chief character of a work of fiction – might have seemed like a spot of golden oil, even though I myself have never seen any window with such an appearance.
Context does little to lend more sense to this, because the surrounding text is more variation on the same, a very literal recycling. What comes up over and over are the curiously specific references (“the detail first mentioned in seventh paragraph of this present work…”), flat images (“the declining sun in one or more upper windows of a house of at least two storeys”), and opaque metaphors (“like a spot of golden oil”). I don’t think I have ever encountered a piece of writing that was so loaded up with intratextual links, but which offered so little satisfaction to the reader who follows the chain of association. Murnane’s writing is like a series of stray paths into a lightly mapped wood, trails which disappear into brush after a minute or two, sending you back to the previous junction, only to branch out again.
I do not see most readers lasting more than five minutes of this. And so my second reaction to Murnane is a sense of appreciation that such a difficult, sometimes unreadable writer could survive over a career. These remarks are only an attempt to register an impression of the text. I’m in that small group of readers who grows more intrigued with difficult writing–perhaps gives texts that are difficult too much credit. But I wonder what would happen today to an artist like Murnane, a writer who starts out with an insistence on being so strange and uncooperative.